AUSTIN, Texas — “Potomac fever” doesn’t just affect the politicians in Washington, D.C. The journalists get infected, too. When reporters get jobs inside the Beltway, they start valuing process over substance and sometimes miss the real story entirely. D.C. reporters are much more likely to write about what someone said about what is happening than what is actually happening. The Sunday morning political talk shows are veritable quarantine zones for what I’m talking about.
The latest example of this frustrating malady is the kerfuffle over Paul Ryan both opposing the $787 billion stimulus bill as a “wasteful spending spree” and then repeatedly asking the Obama administration to send some of that sweet stimulus money to a few of his constituents. It is a pretty run-of-the-mill example of political hypocrisy, even for someone like Ryan who casts himself in the bronze of ideological courage.
This already came up in 2010 when Ryan denied to a Boston radio host that he would “write to the government to ask them to send us money” after he opposed the stimulus bill.
“I did not request any stimulus money,” he added, telling a lie on par with Sarah Palin’s boast that she said, “Thanks but no thanks” on that bridge to nowhere.
When this came up last week in Ohio, Ryan went once more to the well of mendacity, first denying that he had requested stimulus funds from the Obama administration for constituents and then adding ludicrously, “I don’t recall.”
Ryan tried to inject some unreasonable doubt by blaming his staff, but the liberal blog Daily Kos pointed out that he had personally signed the letters he sent to the Energy Secretary.
“After having these letters called to my attention I checked into them, and they were treated as constituent service requests in the same way matters involving Social Security or Veterans Affairs are handled,” Ryan said. “This is why I didn’t recall the letters earlier. But they should have been handled differently, and I take responsibility for that.”
Unlike his lies about requesting stimulus funds, saying, “I take full responsibility” after blaming staff is a Washington lie. The words contradicted the facts but lacked the intent to deceive. In this context, it’s almost an admission of guilt, and it served to put the press hounds off the scent.
So what did we learn after Ryan lied in 2010 and essentially repeated the lie in 2012? To paraphrase Captain Renault, should we be shocked, shocked to find that hypocrisy is going on in Congress? As fun as it is to watch a politician squirm in the spotlight, I would argue that the journalists forgot their Prime Directive: Follow the money.
Therein lies the treasure of meaning in politics, and we even have a map leading right to it. They’re called campaign finance reports, and anyone can look them up at the Federal Election Commission’s website. Even you. In fact, especially you.
While the Washington press corps was documenting hypocrisy, it ignored the possibility that Ryan was guilty of far worse: corruption, albeit the legal variety.
Three of the letters Ryan wrote to the Energy Secretary sought money for the Energy Center of Wisconsin, a non-profit that promotes more efficient energy use of energy. Wisconsin utilities belong to the Energy Center, including Alliant Energy and Xcel Energy. Together, Alliant and Xcel’s political action committees have donated $32,900 to Ryan since 1998, including $10,000 after he wrote those letters. And you don’t need to be Woodward and Bernstein to think that’s probably why he wrote the letters in the first place and why he lied about it later.
Thanks to Ryan’s three letters, the Energy Center received a $20 million grant from the Energy Department, funded by the stimulus bill he voted against. And that’s the story they missed while the Beltway gang was more focused on what Ryan said than what he did, and why.
Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who has helped elect or re-elect more than two dozen Members of Congress. He lives in Austin, Texas. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @jasstanford.